Richard Dawkins’ Atheist Reason Rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., March 24th, 2012: Edward Feser Doesn’t Like It

Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher living in California who has written some really high quality academic books, offers at his blog the following reason for why he thinks the atheist Reason Rally this weekend will prove to be a ridiculous, oxymoronic belly-flop:

A crowd shouts, chants, emotes, and is always, always demanding this or that — it is appetitive rather than cognitive.   In a crowd, the rational in rational animal is always in danger of giving way, leaving just the animal, indeed a herd of animals.

Characteristic of Edward Feser, this is a theoretically interesting argument, high-minded and subtle, for why atheists shouldn’t hold reason rallies as pushback to the ever-ubiquitous and stadium-filling faith rallies held by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics all around America every year.

But is Feser being fair in his judgment?

Does he really believe, for example, that the atheist Reason Rally is going to attract a stadium-sized crowd of, say, sixty thousand people to the Mall, shouting, chanting, emoting, and demanding?

I doubt it.

My personal bet is that the rally size will be, at best, 2,000 people. And they won’t be young. It takes high-testosterone males to generally get a good froth of obnoxious passion going in a crowd.

This will be, I suspect, a gathering of upper and upper-middle class academic and professional white males, mostly over 30, with enough time on their hands to get themselves to the Mall for a weekend to browse atheist books, audio lectures, bumper stickers, and magazine stalls—and hear Richard Dawkins and other atheist organizers and authors make blasphemous cracks from a stage microphone.

In other words, it will be like these pictures I took at the Atheist Alliance International Annual Convention, held in Burbank, California (at the Marriot Hotel Convention Center next to Bob Hope Airport), in 2009, except outdoors:





Boring, right?

On Saturday, the signs of crowd energy will not be irrational Dionysian dancing, disorder, demanding, and chanting, but (at best) clapping, ironic laughing, and hissing. Remember, the Reason Rally is being organized by a British fellow (Richard Dawkins), so anticipate something more along the lines of Monty Python than the Hitler youth.

And can we also have some compassion here, and drop the mockery? Why can’t atheists enjoy some camaraderie and sociality, like religious people do? Isn’t it human to assemble? Why should atheists be a closeted and disorganized minority, living strictly isolated and private lives in the name of rational consistency? Feser, it seems to me, is trying to set up atheists who internalize his criticism for an emotional double-bind.

Not cricket.

And say what you will of contemporary atheists, most of them like the right things (the Enlightenment, Barack Obama, evolution, feminism, critical thinking, doubt, empiricism, universities, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and loathe the right things (Rick Santorum, young earth creationism, fundamentalism, Islamism, postmodernism).

But Edward Feser doesn’t think most contemporary atheists have thought sufficiently about their metaphysics and epistemology to claim the mantle of reason. That’s fair. No one should act like he or she owns reason, nor pretend to start his or her reasoning absent (inherently unverifiable) metaphysical premises. We’ve all got them. Let’s acknowledge it. To be human is to gamble.

But that doesn’t mean that, say, Albert Mohler and Richard Dawkins cannot be distinguished on the matter of faith versus reason. It’s an abuse of language to lump them together as equivalently faith-based in their orientations. Epistemically, we can recognize a fundamentalist from an empiricist. Atheists are part of the doubting community; they are recognizably rational in ways that, say, Albert Mohler is not. (If Albert Mohler organized a Reason Rally, that would be silly.)

And what better place for atheists to hang out together on a spring day than Washington, D.C., which exists because of the Enlightenment? It’s refreshing.

Thomas Jefferson, were he alive in the 21st century, might well have joined the atheists on the Mall. As an agnostic, if I were in D.C. this weekend, I certainly would as well. Dawkins is a delight to listen to, and I like browsing through back-issues of Skeptic magazine. The cherry blossoms, I’m told, are blooming early this year.

thomas jefferson

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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23 Responses to Richard Dawkins’ Atheist Reason Rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., March 24th, 2012: Edward Feser Doesn’t Like It

  1. andrewclunn says:

    It’s too bad we won’t see you there.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      That sounds like you’re going. I’ll look forward to your report.


    • Barry Gram says:

      Dear Mr. Clunn:
      All nine major world religions have been thoroughly researched. They’re all fictions.
      There are 7 billion atheists in the world; 6.2 billion just don’t realize it–it takes Two to Tango; they’re billions of believers in made up religion, just no Supreme Being–the “Tango dance” can’t be fulfilled.
      All belief in made up religion is based on their four foundations: 1)Wishful Thinking, 2)Ignorance, 3)Deceit, 4)Human Gullibility.
      Mr. Clunn, an avowed fence-sitting agnostic, writes this article with empathy for skeptics. There is NO skepticism; either Lord Zeus exists or He doesn’t. He definitely doesn’t. Particle physics over time created the world and the universe not a non-existent God.
      P.S. Your Thomas Jefferson example is very poor. No self-respecting atheist or Realist organization would want a slave-owner who raped his own slaves to attend such an event.
      Barry Gram, a Realist, Carol Stream, Illinois

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        Would contemporary atheists, in your view, be happy to have Nietzsche at their gathering (if not Jefferson)?


      • Blanche Quizno says:

        Barry, I applaud your bold estimate. Early Christians were referred to as “atheists” because they did not acknowledge Rome’s pagan pantheon, we all (should) know. So those who don’t believe in, say, Quetzalcoatl are atheists, and those who don’t believe in Odin or Mithra or Amaterasu or Baal (which simply means, “the Lord”) are – you guessed it! – atheists. Also, I suspect that you cadged your figures from some source that was ultimately using the World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE) – which *ignores* virtually all of China’s population, supposedly because the Chinese government doesn’t publish statistics on religion. (Their claims of the number of Chinese Christians are overinflated in typical dishonest Christian style – double the reality.) However, we all know that the Chinese are overwhelmingly Buddhist + Confucian + Taoist – that’s China’s “Three Treasures” and they’re typically followed as a combo. Can’t pay them no nevermind – since none of them requires “gods”, they might well count for those eeEEEvil atheists! The WCE won’t acknowledge syncretism worldwide, either – as Christianity is intolerant, no one else is allowed more than one religion either – so there. So you design your data gathering process to arrive at the result you want and need – the Evangelical Christian editors of the WCE have no doubts about which side their bread is buttered on.

        A dismissal of the supernatural as an explanation for phenomena is enough in and of itself to take most people most of the way to atheism – it’s no surprise that some Christian fundamentalists have targeted the public schools, attacking science classes in hopes of getting their mythology taught instead.

        There are many reprehensible aspects to Thomas Jefferson just as there are to any figure from history. Even Albert Einstein was an unashamed cheerleader for the Soviet political system! However, I would welcome any of these historical persons at such a gathering – just think of all the questions we could ask and what we could learn from them, for good OR evil!!

  2. colinhutton says:

    “Feser, it seems to me, is trying to set up atheists who internalize his criticism for an emotional double-bind”

    And if you collected a Dollar from every atheist who internalized a Feser criticism ? – well, the total just might cover you for a cup of coffee!

  3. Pingback: “Magic Woody Allen Jesus” on the Mall in D.C. on March 24th, 2012? | Prometheus Unbound

  4. Barry Gram says:

    My apologies to Mr. Clunn, I thought he wrote the article. This is Santi Tafarella’s blog and I assume she wrote this article (although many blog spaces are written by a variety of writers, i.e. Huffington Post).

    Barry Gram, Carol Stream, Illinois

    • andrewclunn says:

      Oh don’t apologize just yet. As an unabashed Social Darwinist with a soft spot for Rand, you still might not want me at a rally. Of course when it’s about reason I feel I have a claim to it. Though I wouldn’t want to be associated with the weak and cowed secular humanists 😉

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Ah, I think that cowed secular humanist group would include me. : )

        If you went to the event, do you have a crowd estimate? The one I saw in the news was a number bandied about by the organizers (20,000). The news outlet wasn’t convinced of this number, and just said “thousands”, and I’m guessing, if the organizers say 20 thousand, it was probably closer to ten thousand.

        But I wasn’t there.


      • andrewclunn says:

        Maybe you can tell the difference between 20 thousand and 10 thousand people from an areal view, but at ground level it’s just, “Hey there’s a lot of people. Damn this weather sucks.” And yeah, I’m sure the secular humanists would welcome you. They seem to have no trouble welcoming religious wackos so long as they agree with their left wing politics, so why not an agnostic? BTW:

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Good video finds! Thank you.


  5. Barry Gram says:

    To Santi Tafarella:
    “Confused Non-Theists Unite!”
    We’re here to promote atheism. No, no. We’re here to promote reason. No, no. We’re here to promote secularism. No, no. We’re here to promote skepticism. No, no. We’re here to promote science. A snarky answer would be they are there to promote all of the above. Snarkiness aside, the non-theist movement of confused atheists and very confused agnostics is as unfocused as the Occupy Wallstreet crowd. All of these people going off on their own personal tangents.
    None of the speakers talked about how reality and reason could improve one’s life, improve the country, or for that matter improve the world. What a blown opportunity!
    No mention how 70% of all the violence in the world and two-thirds of all the wars in the last 35 years are caused by one thing, and only one thing–made up religion. No mention how an entire country just recently, the Sudan, had to be partionned because of the warring factions of the made up religion of Islam in the north, forever fighting with the warring members of the made up religion of Christianity of the south.
    And never any mention of how our limited resources of our lives–our time and money are being robbed by spending countless hours of our time and hundreds of billions of dollars honoring and worshipping non-existent gods of made up religions. Many missed opportunities!
    Barry Gram, a Realist, Carol Stream, Illinois
    (Realists understand, through extensive,objective research that all religions are fictions; all religions are fantasies and frauds.)

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Your above rant is actually pretty eloquent. I certainly like your emphasis on how reason might improve life. But I’d still like your answer to the Nietzsche question: do you welcome Nietzsche into the fold of good atheists or not? You don’t think much of Jefferson, but what about Nietzsche?


      • Blanche Quizno says:

        Nice attempt at a trap, Santi, but the fact is that there is no one in history, even in made-up “history”, who is completely “virtuous.” Albert Einstein openly admired the Soviet political system, and Jesus supposedly said, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.” (Luke 19:27) Jesus also supported monarchy as the ideal governmental system – he was perfectly *fine* with the bosses/owners/rulers/kings having absolute power over the hapless saps under their control, who had no rights whatsoever. The overlord could torture or even *kill* the underling with no consequences. Nowhere in the bible is there any statement of human rights, for example, and nowhere that slavery is condemned. Jesus thought slavery was just *fine*. Finally, Jesus thought it was just ducky for an employer to hire people for different rates of pay and, when they complained, wave them away with statements about how THEIR wages were nothing more than HIS generosity (Matthew 20:1-16). It is ironic that one of the names for this disgusting piece of drivel is “The Parable of the Generous Employer”. So we can conclude that Jesus was anti-unions and anti-equality, too.

        So, to answer your question, I would welcome them both. Just think how much we could learn from them! Who wouldn’t love to corner Thomas Jefferson or Friedrich Nietzsche in a room and pick his brain for even 5 minutes?? I’d take ANYONE from the past. ANYONE. Now why don’t YOU answer your own question, Santi? Back atcha, in other words! Your turn. Go.

    • Blanche Quizno says:

      If you wish to talk about being robbed of hundreds of billions of dollars in the name of worshiping non-existent gods of made up religions (and just plain made up religions – Scientology, anyone??), think about the cost to us all of allowing churches tax-exempt status. One estimate is that the federal government loses $71 TRILLION of tax revenues because of the tradition of religious tax exemption (it’s not codified into the Constitution, either – it’s just a tradition). See Hemant Mehta’s article “The Yearly Cost of Religious Tax Exemptions: $71,000,000,000”. Guess who gets to make up that deficit? That’s right – the REST of us! One analysis estimates that every family in the US has to pay, on average, an extra $1,000 per year in taxes just so these incompetent and ineffective religionists can have private clubhouses they can’t actually afford. See “Why Taxation of Religion Matters” by Austin Cline. Just last month, a judge in Wisconsin ruled that it is unconstitutional for ministers’ housing allowances paid to them by their churches to be tax-exempt. A step in the right direction – for now. Will it advance to the Supreme Court? And, if so, what will happen there? If the businesses we refer to as “religion” can’t make it in the public marketplace without being propped up by all sorts of subsidies and favors, maybe that just shows that religion should be allowed to just die out instead of becoming the poster child for wasteful government spending.

  6. Quentin says:

    Boy you were wrong.

  7. Quentin says:

    I attended the Reason Rally and loved it. I am 34, but a very large number of the people there, probably the majority, were younger than myself, in their early to mid 20s. You can see them in the photos. We even had a mosh pit for when Bad Religion played. Around thirty-thousand attended according to David Silverstein’s estimate, but even if you are cynical about the number it certainly far surpassed 2000, and I really do mean far more. For the first Reason Rally we were incredibly successful and not only was it not like a Hitler Youth Party, but when the hell promising Christians showed up to protest they were not seperated and were constantly surrounded by atheists. Nobody threw punches. Nobody made threats. Yes, some people mocked them (they are telling us we are going to burn for not believing in their myth afterall), but it was debate, arguing and debate. You don’t see that kind of civility between rallies and protestors very often. There are different ways to define atheism, it isn’t neccesairly exclusive from agnostics, and they were some of the friendliest people I have ever met. One fundamentalist by the way at the end of the rally said “now I believe most of you actually are very moral people. I don’t ever worry about my stuff being damaged or stolen like at other rallies. You all just like to argue. But it won’t matter how moral you are if you don’t believe in God.” That a fundamentalist could acknowledge we weren’t evil was refreshing and demonstrates success. I was proud to be there.

    • andrewclunn says:

      Damn Facebook, I spent a good ten seconds searching for the ‘like’ button under this post.

    • Blanche Quizno says:

      Quentin, if you’re still around, thanks for that account – I wish I could’ve been there, but I live on the wrong coast for easy travel 😦 You mentioned the ages there – the young people. These are the Millennial generation, and it’s the largest generation on record – 77+ million. By comparison, the Baby Boom was a paltry 75+ million. And guess what? The demographic you are least likely to see attending Christian churches is…Millennials. They aren’t attending mosques or synagogues or any other organized religion’s services, either. How encouraging!! I am a BIG fan of the Millennials – they are less likely than any older generation to be racist, homophobic, hostile to the poor and needy, and to approve of runaway capitalist income inequality. Finally, a generation that gives me hope!

  8. Barry Gram says:

    To Santi Tafarella;
    Yes, I’m sure most modern-day non-theists would accept Friedrich, before he became demented, Nietzsche into the fold. (Many, however, would not agree with his ideas of postmodernism).
    From what my sources tell me and the aerial photo, there were actually about 11,000 people at the Reason Rally if you subtract the literally hundreds of counter-protestors that were there, and no where near the 30,000 number Mr. Silverstein embellished. (I thought inaccurate embellishments were the purview of theists).
    Over the years, I have spoken to dozens and dozens of atheists. If you ever talk to them more than 15 minutes you find that about 3 in 10 aren’t really atheists–they’ll start tipping their hands and say things like “I don’t really know; I haven’t studied religion enough; maybe there is some hidden Creator, Higher Power, etc.” They’re actually agnostics not atheists.
    You continue to talk to them, you find out about 2 in 10 are really “spiritualists”. They are not religious, they are spiritual. They believe in a supernatural spirit world. A world you can enter through prayer and meditation. The same mystical spirit world that Oprah preached for 25 years on her show.(It sure makes people feel good about themselves and more wishful, unprovable thinking.) Identical to made up religion.
    A rabbi, a priest, and a Buddhist monk go into a bar. The bartender looks them over and says, “What’s your poison?” All three, in unison reply, “Reason, of course!”
    Barry Gram, Carol Stream, Il

  9. Blanche Quizno says:

    Good joke!! What you’ve experienced with regard to the atheists you’ve met illustrates the difficulty of identifying this group in simplistic terms. They don’t actively believe in any god(s). That’s all you can say about them. Beyond that, they’re free to be superstitious, to believe in reincarnation, to believe in magic healing crystals, or magic, or the wondrous benefits of yoga or a raw-fruit diet. Anything goes, in other words – anything except belief in “god(s)”.

    And the fact that our Christianity-dominated culture has labeled “atheists” as the ultimate evil and danger to society, it should not surprise you in the least that people try to avoid being identified as a part of the one group it remains socially acceptable to discriminate against. There is so much bigotry directed at atheists! The only cure is for more of us to “come out” and the Millennial generation (described in an earlier post here) is the most likely of all to self-identify as “atheist.”

    I think what you’re looking for is *strong* atheists. Those who don’t actively believe and who are willing to go so far as to state that they don’t believe any of that theist nonsense, to the point that they are willing to state that they don’t believe god(s) could even exist. Like me.

    And we’re all agnostics – “agnostic” is a statement on knowledge, not belief. And, since there is no evidence to base knowledge upon, all we’re left with is namby-pamby belief. Those who identify as “agnostics,” though, are typically spineless weasels who fancy they can sit on a fence and thus avoid identifying themselves as horrible, immoral, wicked, criminally-inclined, eeeEEEvil atheists!!

  10. Anonymous says:

    It’s always funny to see how atheists or so-called skeptics, pay lip service to reason, tolerance and knowledge. There’s not much reason or logic in most of their arguments. Take for example, the notion that there’s no free will, promoted by the so-called new atheists. That means an atheist doesn’t the free will to be an atheist. There’s not much tolerance, if you listen to their anti-faith rants and arguments, they always blame people who believe in God for problems in the world. By they way, Barry Gram if you consider the track record of atheism, with tens of millions murdered worldwide since 1917, you’ll have a good reason to shut up and stop pointing the finger at Christianity and religion in general. How about the horrors of secular atheist societies and governments? From Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, to Vietnam, North Korea and China.
    I got a feeling you don’t like to talk about that.

    The concept of knowledge comes up in this topic. The fact is, knowledge has nothing to do with disbelief. Where do you get the idea that not believing in God and in a spiritual dimension, makes you smarter? Michael Faraday was a devout Christian and he made an important discovery in one of the fields of science.

    Santi, remember when you said that you talked to Dawkins personally once and you noticed his reaction when you mentioned William Lane Craig. You said that he had a reaction “like a fundamentalist”, angry. So, you’re finally realizing that atheists can be just as bad and stupid as some of their religious counterparts. That’s good. 🙂 You’re discovering that atheists always intelligent and enlightened, is just a myth.

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